The Cosmopolitan Basque: Euzko-Etxea of New York
Gloria Totoricagüena Egurrola

The first settlements of numerous Basques to the United States east coast followed the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad and the final connection in Utah in 1869. Prior to this date, Basques from Argentina and Chile had migrated to the American West after the discovery of gold in California in 1848 and 1849. Basques from Euskal Herria that migrated directly from their homeland were forced to make the sea voyage across the Atlantic Ocean and around the southern cone of the Americas and up the Pacific coast to North America and the California coast. It was a dangerous, expensive, and what must have seemed like a never-ending voyage. However, once the cross-country railroad was finished, this brought immigrants to the port of New York where they disembarked and then continued on with their direct movement by rail to the west. The majority of those first Basque immigrants to New York had plans to move west, but instead found employment in the ports of New York and New Jersey, and a few had reached the end of their tolerance for traveling and simply refused to move any further.

It is often forgotten that "the trip" from the Basque Country to the United States was not only the crossing of the Atlantic, but actually began days earlier with travel by horse or train from a rural town to the cities of Bilbao or San Sebastián-Donostia. The entire next day would include a train trip north to the French ports of Bordeaux or Le Havre. There, emigrants waited additional days completing paperwork and eventually boarded a passenger ship if they were lucky or wealthy, and a cargo ship if they were not. The journey for most Basques at the beginning of the 1900s was lengthy and frightening. Crossing the Atlantic could take anywhere from fourteen to thirty days depending on the itinerary, weather and storms, and the type of ship traveling. Hundreds of interviewed Basque immigrants remember the fear of the voyage and the seasickness they experienced, and advancing the last miles to the entrance of the port of New York was overwhelming for many. It also augmented a new fear of the metropolis, which was far beyond the stature any of them could have ever imagined from their experiences in the rural Basque Country.

Between 1855-1890, Basque immigrants arriving to New York were processed at Castle Garden -as one of eight million other new arrivals. Ellis Island officially opened as an immigration processing station in 1892 and remained active until the 1924 National Origins Act was passed by Congress, allowing potential immigrants to undergo their inspections before they left their country of origin. Between 1897 and 1902, there were 636 persons with definite Basque surnames that entered the country through the immigration offices in New York. Eighty-six percent were male and seventy-seven percent were single. There most likely were many other Basques who also entered who were not counted because their surnames were not so obviously recognizable. Basques were only one of hundreds of ethnic groups speaking a myriad of languages that disembarked at Ellis Island. All new applicants were then held at Ellis Island for health inspections, medical inspections, hearings for those detained, literacy tests, and others. Persons with physical deformities, sickness or disease could be refused entry and sent back to their countries of origin. The relief of passing all of the inspections and tests was fantastic.

"Jai-Alai", Valentín & Benita Orbe Aguirre´s bar-restaurant, N.Y city. Photo: 1940

Valentín Aguirre was one of those first Basque pioneers to reach New York City. He arrived from Bizkaia in 1895 and eventually become one of the most significant Basques in the United States. He and his wife, Benita Orbe, had eight children, and together they established the Basque boarding house known as the Santa Lucia Hotel and the Jai-Alai Restaurant. The Santa Lucia was also named the Casa Vizcaína. Though the exact records that Aguirre meticulously kept were unfortunately later thrown away carelessly, it is estimated that several thousand Basque immigrants stayed at the hotel and benefited from the Aguirres' care and assistance in continuing on their journey to Nevada, California, Idaho, and Oregon. Valentín, or one of his sons, would go out to the docks of the city and meet the passenger ships that brought the new immigrants into the city from Ellis Island once they has passed all of their inspections and paperwork. One can certainly imagine the overwhelming relief the Basques felt when from the busy docks of New York City they could hear the shout of "Euskaldunak emen badira?" "Are there any Basques here?" Basques on board shouted back with joy, "Bai, bai! Ni euskalduna naiz!"

The Casa Vizcaína served as a travel agency as well, and Valentín Aguirre made arrangements to get Basque immigrants their train tickets to their final destinations in the west, along with employment information and Basque boarding house along the way information. After staying in New York for a few days to recover from their sea voyages, the majority of Basques continued on to meet the relatives and fellow villagers. Benita Orbe Aguirre made each one a huge basket of food with French bread, tortilla, chorizo, ham and fruit to last them during the first few days of their train journey. Other Basques were thrilled with the energy of the city and decided to stay. Many were from coastal towns in the Basque Country and wanted to remain living in a coastal environment. Others had years of experience working on the docks and in maritime commerce and found jobs in the ports and docks immediately.

The original Basque community took root at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge along the docks of Cherry and Water Streets. Besides the Aguirre hotel there were Basque families that gave room and board to Basque immigrants in their own homes. There were Basque grocery stores and restaurants; Basque delivery businesses; wine and beer distribution businesses. Carmen Moneo sold imported goods from the Basque Country and Spain for more than seventy-five years until the 1980s. Most of the Basques attended Catholic mass at St. Joaquin's Church, St. Joseph's Church, and at the Our Lady of Guadalupe, where there was a Basque priest. Many of the Basque couples were married at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.

In approximately 1905, Valentín Aguirre, Elias Aguirre, Juan Cruz Aguirre, Escolástico Uriona, and Toribio Altuna gathered together one night to discuss creating a Basque association for Basques in New York. By 1913 they had formed the Central Vasco-Americano Sociedad de Beneficiencia y Recreo, the first Basque Center of the United States, and in 1928 they purchased their first building. Initially this association was a mutual benefit and charity organization dedicated to helping those newly arrived, and to aiding those Basques living in New York that might be in financial difficulties. The Central Vasco-Americano, later renamed Centro Vasco-Americano, began as an all-male member organization although their families participated in all events. The building purchased in 1928 had an indoor fronton, and there was a Basque dancing group for youth. Basques organized their festival picnics at Coney Island and later at various parks.

Jon Oñatibia, txistulari, pipe-organ player, chorus director and dance basque coreogrpher in N.Y city. Photo 1976

During the late 1940s and early 1950s several of the youth of the Basque organization decided to form their own group called Juventud. At that time, Jon Oñatibia, the organist, txistulari, dance choreographer, and Basque philologist was living in New York and he lead the way to forming the dance troupe Euzkadi, which eventually not only performed in the New York and east coast area, but also conducted a five month tour of Canada, the western United States, and Cuba. Oñatibia directed this group from 1950 to 1963 and later was selected by the Idaho Basque Studies Center and the North American Basque Organizations to teach Basque language, dance and txistu at their annual summer music camps for adolescents.

The priest José Mari Larrañaga was another instrumental figure in maintaining Basque identity and collective activity in New York. While at the Church of St. James from 1962 to 1970, he united both generations by helping to organize dinners and dances for the Basque community. He gave masses in euskera. In 1966 the women of the New York Basque community also formed their own group named Andrak. In the 1960s the attendance at Basque picnics, dinners, and dances increased from a usual 150 to over 600 persons.

New York city. Euzko-Etxea building in Eckford Street. Photographied by Gloria Totoricagüena -2002.

In the decades after World War II, the Centro Vasco-Americano suffered from various problems of circumstances and had to move the seat of the organization various times, renting in different places in Manhattan. In 1973, after many years of renting and moving, the now named Euzko-Etxea of New York, bought their own building in what was a Polish neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough. The building was formerly a two story church and the Basques renovated it to include a large kitchen and bar, a dining room, a small meeting room or classroom for language classes, a small library, and the upstairs is a reception hall for special events that can seat more than 400 persons. A stage and piano complete the second floor reception hall.

Anna Mari Aguirre,basque coreographer teahcher and Carlos Iturralde, basque languaje professor at the Euzko-Etxeaof NewYork. Photographied by Gloria Totoricagüena

In 2002, Dr. Emilia Doyaga and Ana Mari Aguirre are commandeering an effort to establish an International Basque Cultural Center in Manhattan, at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge where historically the Basque immigrants lived and worked. Today it is the posh area where nearly one million tourists enjoy the architecture of the Brooklyn Bridge, the South Street Seaport and its shops, and various other attractions in the neighborhood. The idea is to establish a three-story complex which will include offices for Basque Country enterprises doing business in the United States and vice versa, an art gallery for exhibition, a library for research about Basques worldwide, a restaurant and bar, and reception hall area for cultural and educational activities. The estimated costs are over seven million dollars, and Doyaga and Aguirre have begun the fundraising efforts in earnest. The Basques of New York may very well accomplish the goal of returning to the old neighborhood of their ancestors.

Dr. Gloria Totoricagüena Egurrola, Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno

Euskonews & Media 206. zbk (2003 / 04 / 04-11)

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